For the third straight year, homelessness is rising in America, with big increases seen on the West Coast, in the Midwest and among people of color.
But while California and Oregon saw some of the biggest increases in the nation, by one count Washington state’s overall homeless population decreased, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
It’s the first time in nine years homelessness has dropped in the state. Yet the numbers don’t totally mirror what’s happening on the ground in Seattle, which still has a large and visible homeless population, or the experiences of many small and midsize Washington communities, some grappling with the issue for the first time.
That was clear at a legislative preview Thursday, as a handful of legislators and later Gov. Jay Inslee were questioned repeatedly by reporters about how the state plans to address the crisis, particularly ahead of a severe cold weather front expected to hit the region in the coming days. Inslee has proposed using $300 million from the state’s rainy-day fund to address the problem, pledging to cut the state’s unsheltered population in half in two years. With Republican votes needed to spend rainy-day funds, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will take that approach or try to address the issue in other ways.
Around the country, homelessness is up almost 3%, HUD announced Tuesday, encompassing more than half a million people. The report is based on tallies from around the country that happened over one night in January last year, a highly imperfect count that’s often administered by volunteers. Many homeless-service agencies argue the so-called one-night count (which, in King County, also involves estimations based on surveys held the days after the count) is too narrow to give a good picture of homelessness and is likely an undercount.
But the report is the only national measure of unsheltered homeless people, and by its estimate, those living outside — in cars, in camps, or in abandoned buildings — increased 9% since 2018. This reflects a rise in major cities and among communities of color, according to Meghan Henry, a senior associate at Abt Associates, a public-policy research firm that produced the report for HUD.
In fact, people of color who are homeless account for nearly the entire increase in homelessness, Henry said, while the number of homeless white people remained flat.
“Those racial disparities are getting worse, and that’s something worth time and investigation as to why,” Henry said.
The drop in Washington’s homelessness was driven, at least in part, by drops in Seattle and Tacoma. Vancouver, Everett and Spokane, however, saw their numbers rise significantly.
Better coordination across the state — matching the right people to the right housing or program — is one of the reasons homelessness went down, according to Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director of housing assistance at the state Department of Commerce.
“Washington state has a strong story to tell about performance improvement,” Kelleher said. “Even though rents have been soaring across the state … we’ve been able to keep pace with some of that.”
Washington state is fairly average when it comes to how many people the state managed to get into housing, Kelleher said, but it’s above average in keeping people out of homelessness once they’re housed. That’s according to preliminary numbers from the Department of Commerce looking at how many people came back to a homeless-service agency asking for help within two years of getting housed. From 2016 to 2018 in Washington, 35% of people who asked for homeless services got stably housed, as opposed to a nationwide average of less than 32%.
Henry disagreed with this conclusion, saying those numbers only show how well the homeless emergency system deals with people once they are homeless. A rise in homelessness is usually due to outside factors like affordability, she said.
“It’s a tempting correlation to make, but … you can have a really strong performance and really meet your benchmarks and exceed them, without it necessarily being reflected in an increase or decrease,” Henry said.
After HUD released the numbers Tuesday, many homeless-service providers raised concerns about the results, particularly a nationwide drop in the number of homeless youth and families with children. For years, providers like Melinda Giovengo, who runs YouthCare in Seattle and chairs the National Network for Youth, have encouraged HUD not to just count people who are literally homeless, but also include young people who are couch-surfing.
“Those young people are excluded from the count — and those literally are the majority of young people experiencing homelessness,” Giovengo said. “And the reason they’re excluded is the number would be astronomical for the state of Washington.”
Including couch-surfing students would expand the numbers by the tens of thousands: according to data from Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were more than 40,000 homeless students (including those who couch-surf) in Washington in the 2017-18 school year.
In a news release about the numbers, HUD officials specifically noted California’s large increase in homelessness, with HUD Secretary Ben Carson saying the issue must be addressed “by local and state leaders with crisis-like urgency.” President Donald Trump has repeatedly made a target of California’s homeless crisis in recent months, threatening federal intervention. Trump’s appointment of Robert Marbut, a controversial figure among the homeless-services community, to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has already alarmed many advocates and service providers.